It has taken me a long time to figure out that it was the beginning, middle and end container he placed my work in that was subverting the foundations of my daily, journalistic, production scheme.
Well, it happens. You get stuck artistically. You reach a place on the mountainside where will flags and the map fails you. This is where I have been since the photobook master class I took at the end of September.
Rather than spur me on, as every prior workshop I have taken has, it stopped me. The leaders of the workshop called into question my insistence on chronology as an organizing principle for my work and the interspersing of journal writings amidst the photography.
So stuck have I been, that it has taken me weeks to write this blog post talking about it.
Chronology is important to me because I make photographs journalistically, that is to say, daily. The work does not pursue any particular theme, though themes do emerge along the way. Along with the photographic paractice I have maintained a written journal. To me, the depth of my work lies in its steady unfolding over time. As such, it doesn’t have a beginning, middle or end. Its a continuous flow. I use excerpts from my written journal to ground the work in humanity, which is missing from the photographic work because I rarely photograph people.
Chronological presentation was immediately and uniformly questioned as unnecessarily limiting. I was told that achieving the strongest possible sequencing trumps chronology. I was also told that the journal entries were too personal and would not be of interest to people who might read the book.
Teun, the leader of the class and a brilliant sequencer, organized my photographs in story arc fashion using Charles Ives “The Unanswered Question” as structural inspiration. I was, and continue to be, pleased with his perception that I am asking such a question with my work and I love the music.
He produced an effective book. It told, as best it could, the story I shared about my work with the available images. But I have struggled to know what the next step should be.
It has taken me a long time to figure out that it was the beginning, middle and end container he placed my work in that was subverting the foundations of my daily, journalistic, production scheme. To be fair to Teun, I am not sure there was anything else to do with the images I gave him to work with nor that he intended for me to get boxed in by his idea.
I came to view the book he produced as a summation and presentation of my core photographic philosophy. I could imagine drawing from a larger set of images, all four seasons as opposed to just spring, for example, but I was still left with a concept utilizing a finite number of images to tell a story, abstract as it was, with a beginning, middle and end. I wondered how many times I could make such a book. Only once I figured. At some point I would have to limit myself to a particular pool of images and publish the book. When I did, it would be my definitive statement about the work. Then what?
Throughout my period of stuckness I have been repeatedly thinking about a novel I read while traveling through Finland many years ago by Frans Eemil Sillanpää. What I remember most about the novel is that it didn’t really have a beginning or end. It picked up the threads of the characters’ lives, followed them for a period of time, and then set the threads down. Stories were told along the way, but they were without major climaxes and resolutions for the entire set of characters.
This is how I thought I should be viewing my photographic production, but hard as I tried, I couldn’t make it fit with the unanswered question book concept we came up with in class.
Then, as I was working on this post the other day, I had one of those moments where the axis of your thinking shifts.
Along with the Sillanpää novel The Unanswered Question continued to play in my head. The music is structured in three basic parts. There is an underlying constant hum of strings which is the “music of the spheres.” This hum fades in, runs continuously in the background throughout the piece, then fades out. It is the first and last sound heard and the implication is that it doesn’t start or stop. It is a continuum. There is a trumpet that comes in periodically and asks a question about the nature of existence. Woodwind instruments repeatedly try to answer the question posed by the trumpet, but get increasingly agitated because they are unable to supply an answer that satisfies the questioner.
It occurred to me that this piece of music is an outstanding metaphor for my entire body of work. The strings are the continuum of my photographic production while the horn and woodwinds are an ongoing conversation of images selected from the continuum. These conversations can be haiku poems (diptych or triptych), short stories (10 to 15 sequenced images), or a novel (photo book). They don’t have to be chronological. They don’t have to be summations of the body. They don’t have to be definitive statements. They simply have to ask questions and express ideas that are culled from the flow of images.
When I made this shift in thinking I got my continuum back. It could, and probably should be presented chronologically wherever the continuum as a whole is referenced. From that continuum I have the possibility of numerous boxing concepts (questions and answers) that can be pursued as an elaboration of meaning drawn from it. This completely suits my way of producing images and will give me working room and projects for a long time to come.
Hooah! Stuck no more.